The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games

by Bonnie Ruberg, Duke University Press, 2020, 288 pp.
Paperback, $26.95 ISBN 978-1-478-00658-9

The Queer Games Avant-GardeHow can queer games help reinvent what games can be? This is the leading question of Bonnie Ruberg’s The Queer Games Avant-Garde: How LGBTQ Game Makers Are Reimagining the Medium of Video Games. Yet beyond this central issue, the book also offers at least two other, more far-reaching questions for its readers to ponder. In what ways should the maker communities of games in particular and the arts in general be reshaped such that queer people and other sidelined minorities can contribute to them safely and in fair measure? And, more specifically for academics, how can, should, or must we reimagine the production of scholarship when its topic concerns marginalized or disenfranchised individuals and communities? Through a series of interviews, The Queer Games Avant-Garde explores multifarious answers to its explicit question and opens many avenues for readers to think through the more implicit ones. It is an accessible, open-ended, and highly dialogic book that will be helpful for scholars of games, queer studies scholars interested in the practical applications of queer theories, and especially students in the fields of game-making, design, and digital arts.

Ruberg’s book takes a unique approach to addressing these issues. Following an overt acknowledgment that the book intends “to foreground how queer game makers tell their own stories” (23), Ruberg gives readers a series of brief interviews—twenty interviews with twenty-two game-makers—in which the game designers reflect on their experiences in the games industry, their approach to designing games, and what queerness means to them within and outside of their games. Rather than provide a theoretical through-line or argument, Ruberg structures the book into seven parts, each with a different topical focus. Although the book as a whole is framed by Ruberg’s introduction and closing note, it takes a radical “show don’t tell” approach to the concept of a central argument. Thus, readers expecting to come away with crystal-clear notions of precisely how best to queer video games or achieve inclusivity in game-making communities may be disappointed. Yet this disappointment is entirely in line with the book’s project: the multifarious perspectives of the game-makers in the queer games avant-garde can help us to reimagine video games, but they do not complete that project for us. This indeterminacy is best understood as the book’s acknowledgment that there are no conclusive answers and that the best we can do is to tune our attention to the multiple and diverging perspectives of the game-makers themselves. 

This is why the reading experience might at times veer into the repetitive, with the same questions being raised but not answered. At the same time, this open-ended structure will make The Queer Games Avant-Garde an excellent resource for teachers. The chapters lend themselves superbly to beginning multilinear conversations with students because they provide brief but thought-provoking entry points into larger conversations. When assigned in combination with other chapters from the same part, these brief texts already constitute a kind of conversation with multiple perspectives and different opinions. Furthermore, since neither the chapters, nor the thematic sections, nor the book as a whole attempt to draw final conclusions from the interview texts, such assignments will invite students into debate about what such conclusions might look like.

Yet for academics the book’s nonargumentative structure raises a number of questions. One might criticize Ruberg’s project for its refusal to contribute to theories of queerness or to present histories, even nonlinear ones, of queer game-making. But I would argue that The Queer Games Avant-Garde is more meaningfully read as a book that challenges or at least asks us to question the more usual modes of academic knowledge production. Here, it is not the critic’s analytical interpretations or theoretical innovations that create new knowledge. Rather, the game-makers’ own thinking about their games and about the industry are what Ruberg centers as the site of knowledge. In their work, Ruberg has already questioned who is typically allowed to contribute to knowledge and what forms of work count as producing it; The Queer Games Avant-Garde provocatively performs a different and unusual approach to these questions. In so doing, it also embodies an ethical stance toward conducting research on marginalized subjects. Such research, Ruberg seems to suggest, needs to center its subjects rather than the researchers as the makers of meaning. If that meaning is too complex and multifarious to be deduced to a central argument, then so be it.

In sum, The Queer Games Avant-Garde is a superb teaching tool across game design, digital arts, queer studies, and digital humanities classrooms that will be sure to spark numerous meaningful debates, both critical and practical. As one might hope that it will help the video game industry reshape itself around more diverse labor practices and games, so too will it encourage students and scholars to rethink what games can be and do. Less obviously, though, it will also be an excellent resource for scholars seeking to reimagine what academic knowledge production looks like and who counts as a contributor to knowledge.

by Daniella Gáti, NYU Shanghai